FIGURE 1. A RHIZZONE POSTER DELIVERS A POST TO A LOWER TIER WEB FORUM.
The only thing that needs to be said about the iconic cover to Action Comics #1, the first issue of Superman comics, and the first ever appearance of a superhero if you’re not a jackass about it, is nothing, because no one cares about it. The book is worth a lot of money if you own one, so the only currency it has is as a go-to TV sight gag for one of a collection of obscenely valued objects that some (supposed) idiot is ignoring or destroying. The peak popularity of this image in the popular consciousness came and went in around two seconds of an episode of The Simpsons, a show often written by the sort of people who would call this cover “iconic”. I don’t know how iconic something can be if almost no one knows about it, including nerds. You could find the least fun person at any party and sketch this thing out on a napkin and there would be no guarantee that even that guy would recognize your facsimile of "Ian Holm does 'The Scream' in front of Mortal Kombat vs. Cars". The composition’s noisy, the perspective’s messed up and nowadays, it doesn’t look like a very Superman thing to do, which is why Bryan Singer edited it for his 2003 film so that Superman is, instead, gently plopping down a horny Parker Posey’s automobile on a busy street.
Superman was a different kind of guy back in 1938. I don’t just mean the character was portrayed differently compared to how he appears in media right now, although that’s true in many ways. I don’t mean that the character was remarkable during his earliest years in a way that he’d never be again, though that’s also true. I mean that when the first Superman cover debuted, there wasn’t any particular reason to see a big frowning guy in blue and red with a cape smashing a car as a hero or even a decent guy, even when it appeared on the cover of a comic book. The word “superhero” descends from Superman’s name, so no kid looking at that cover had any idea what a superhero was yet. The cover worked like all pulp covers work: by using the grimiest, quickest and cheapest effort to get someone to buy the book and start reading it. Who is this guy? Why is he being such an asshole to everyone? Pay ten cents and find out, plus maybe a couple stories about cowboys.
FIGURE 2. A HUGH BOULDER.
I mentioned what kids knew about superheroes. Completely unlike the depressing economic conditions in our own time—likely the twilight of the relatively short-lived existence of superhero comics—it would have still been kids who were buying this magazine (or begging their parents to buy it) back in 1938. It was not nerd collectors, who were busy with numismatics, nor would this comic likely have interested many people over the age of ten without developmental handicaps. Comic strips were well known and beloved in the States, but beyond a handful of live-action and animated serials in theaters, comic book characters entered the mind of the U.S. voting public for the first time twenty years after Action Comics #1, through showy Congressional tribunals denouncing many of the titles as violent, gory, sexy, pretty great and altogether inappropriate for the children reading them.
The official history of corporate comics relates this story of a regulated consumer market with hissing, booing and Signs of the Cross, but most of the accusations were fair enough, as the ‘50s saw the unsupervised heyday of gruesome war comics, the third or so resurgence of the “Zombie!” in U.S. pop culture and the debut of EC’s Tales from the Crypt & Mad, the latter soon adding “Magazine” to its title to evade the comic book industry’s looming self-imposed ban on content ranging from werewolves to drug abuse.1 Following the oddball eruption of Pogo as a campus icon, comics characters penetrated the college set alongside marijuana and psychedelics in the late ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s thanks to their accumulated Playboy/Mad pedigree, but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that comic books reached their current dismal state where all the kids love superheroes, but comic books only sell to adults. And to very, very few of them.
FIGURE 3. ACCORDING TO MOST COMIC BOOK HISTORIANS, CONCERN THAT A YOUNG CHILD MIGHT BUY THIS COMIC BOOK IS THE SAME THING AS FULL SUPPORT FOR “TAILGUNNER” JOE MCCARTHY. THE PUBLISHERS AGREED, ESPECIALLY TO PROTECT THEIR MANY BOOKS ABOUT ROOTING OUT AND KILLING COMMUNISTS EVERYWHERE.
What then the purpose of Superman, or superheroes, in the “Golden Age” of Depression-era comic strips for children? The question “why does a superhero exist?” is easy to answer nowadays: to fight super-villains, or more recently, other superheroes in brattish fits of pique. But, as mentioned, “superhero” is derived from “Superman”, ditto “super-villain”; neither concept existed when Superman first appeared. The first enemy Superman would fight with abilities more than those of ordinary men would not appear until Action Comics #13; until then, Superman fought miscreants with no more power than afforded humans in the real world. It is of little consequence that this version of Superman could not fly, project beams of laser-like heat from his eyes, freeze enemies in their tracks with his “super-breath”, nor any other of the dozens of additional “super-powers” assigned to him in later incarnations. He was still, by design, like a god among men: an alien from another planet with the countenance of a movie star, strong enough to toss cars like confetti, durable enough to chuckle at anything “less than a bursting shell”, and, as famously repeated on his future radio and TV shows, faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive.
This hardly seems fair given his non-“super” opposition, but Shuster and Siegel provided a perspective that more than made up the difference to themselves and their readers: class & oppression. Hollywood today would be completely unable to present Superman as he was in his first years of existence, the true original Superman; the reactionary pejorative “social justice warrior” could hardly capture the vehemence of Superman’s lefty politics. Superman fought a specific sector of the criminal element—the powerful—on behalf of a specific sector of society, those they preyed upon. Further, Superman decided for himself who was and was not a criminal, with little care for the broken laws of a liberal society or those who enforced them. Superman reduced his bourgeois opponents to gibbering, weeping heaps through sheer terrorism. On at least one occasion in these early stories, he literally frightens a man to death, tossing him aside with a shrug and a grin. The gleeful mayhem of these stories cannot be understated, nor the violently populist and progressive nature of Superman’s adventures.
FIGURE 4. SUPERMAN HANDLES A BOSS, LIKE A BOSS.
Superman is not a Marxist or Communist, at least in the traditional sense. At no point does he encourage the masses to revolt against the bourgeoisie; of course, if Shuster and Siegel had presented him doing so in the late 1930s, they would have been subject to extreme penalties up to and including permanent exile from the country of their birth. Superman is, however, something a degree more radical than a New Deal liberal, constantly engaged in heady opposition to the go-slow line of the urban Democratic Party (examples will follow). One might style Superman the patron saint of left-wing anarchism, meting out miracles of justice against class enemies wherever the system has failed the downtrodden of Metropolis. His dual identity as Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Star2, is no accident: Superman is a muckraker par excellence, except he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty—quite dirty—to clean up the misdeeds he uncovers. The leftward pressure on the Democratic Party came from the masses in the era of the Depression—the urban, industrial, immigrant workers of the Northeast among others—and Superman presents that pressure incarnate in heroic form.
The best proof of that is simply that you’ve heard of the guy at all. Superman’s success depended on the leftish, populist politics not only of its creators, but also, of course, those of its young readers, not to mention their parents’ approval and the tacit acceptance of the stories by the press hawks of the Roosevelt government (who didn’t really start paying attention until the character could be coopted as a WWII super-patriot). The swift rise of Superman to national icon captures a moment when young boys in big cities in the United States would save up their allowances to purchase weekly the exploits of an anti-capitalist strong-man, a “Man of Steel”, as he did what any self-respecting man would do when faced with the iniquities of the world. He would go out there, find the crooks responsible, and kick their asses.
The current image of Superman in U.S. culture, in any form, is so distant from his original left-wing essence that the only way to introduce him is through a form of shock therapy, like dousing the reader in an ice bath. Consider, then, the acts of Superman in his first few appearances:
- In his first appearance, Superman discovers a death row inmate has been wrongly convicted on the night her sentence is to be carried out. Superman breaks into the governor’s mansion, beats up a bodyguard and demands a stay of execution as the clock ticks down in the lower right of each panel:
- A few pages later, Superman discovers that an American weapons manufacturer has purchased a United States senator so that he’ll vote the U.S. into a war between two small countries, netting billions for the arms industry. Superman realizes the law has been bought and sold and it won’t solve the problem, so he takes justice into his own hands as he tracks down and terrorizes the culprits into submission:
…and before he puts a stop to the United States’ arms industry’s splendid little war, Superman forces the capitalist punk behind it all to enlist in one side’s army and face his own filthy products as they do their work. The arms magnate spouts the proverbs of the logic of capital, then spouts a little urine:
- By Action Comics #3, Superman is out fighting for the workers, or, more accurately, going undercover as an immigrant miner to punish the mine’s owner for unsafe working conditions that Clark Kent uncovers while working a story about all the proletarians this capitalist deathtrap has endangered.
Superman decides the best way to exact revenge will be to lure his boss and his drunken friends into the mine, then bury them alive in it...
...so he can watch them strangle each other in despair when the mine’s fail-safes are revealed as worthless:
- As Superman took off as a success in real life, Superman finds his popularity sky-rocketing within his strip as well, and is outraged to discover that the story of his deeds has been stolen to pimp consumer products…
…so he dispenses two-fisted justice to those capitalist clowns:
whoa wow all, right, okay here we go
FIGURE 5. HIS NAME WAS MIKE.
- After taking some time off to reform local bandits with a lecture on class economics…
…the Man of Steel analyzes the material conditions of Metropolis’s urban neighborhoods and concludes that the government has allowed the area to collapse both economically and physically, tempting its youth into penny-ante criminal gangs as the roofs of their tenements collapse on top of them. Superman ponders the problem—how can he get Roosevelt’s New Deal corps off their duffs to fix the problem?
In a key moment of contradiction realized, Superman understands that to get a do-nothing liberal government to address a true economic disaster they refuse to acknowledge, he has to replace it with a natural disaster instead to mask the ever-elided culpability of class society. Disaster relief will only be sent to address a so-called “act of God”. Superman is happy to oblige with an act of Superman:
Not to be outdone in its own fastidious destruction of the neighborhood, the government sends out the National Guard to go Kent State on the Man of Tomorrow…
...and when Troops don’t work, they send in the planes for some domestic pacification bombing:
With the bourgeois power structure duly freaked out and able to blame the problem on a disaster other than the real one (themselves), aid follows swiftly:
- In the stories that follow, Superman and Clark Kent meet with escaped convicts and Superman goes undercover again, this time as the super-convict no screw can scare and no whip can break, to combat inhumane conditions for prisoners…
- ... wrapping up his tour with a jaunt back to Metropolis to creep on Wall Street swindlers in their pajamas.
FIGURE 6. AT FAR RIGHT IN EACH PANEL ABOVE, AN OBSERVANT READER WILL NOTICE ME EVERY DAMN DAY.
All of this joyous havoc in service to the worker came to an abrupt halt when the people behind the book struck commercial gold3 for the second time. Harried to summon a menace equal to a populist hero who spent most of his early adventures laughing off his elitist opposition, the strip’s creative team delivered in true children’s-literature fashion by building a character who was the exact opposite of Superman in every way: physically his inferior by far, but possessed of a superhuman genius; sneering, bourgeois-scientific, megalomaniacal and as dedicated to conquest of the masses as Superman was to their liberation, the villain’s gleaming, bald pate a decrepit reversal of Superman’s perfect, youthful coif.
I’m talking, of course, about The Ultra-Humanite. What red-blooded American asshole doesn’t know the name of Superman’s first great foe?
FIGURE 7. STATLER’S FIRST CANON APPEARANCE IN THE SHARED MUPPETVERSE.
Yeah Good For You “dude”. Even his friends knew he wasn’t going anywhere except the nearest oxygen tent. Later on, the character would swap his ultra-nerd brain into a more exciting body so DC could take advantage of one of the most enduring and successful sales tricks in the comic book industry, “Put A Gorilla On It”, but for the time being, Ultra’s contribution to the world was not an attention-grabbing look, nor repeat appearances in ghastly feature films as played by award-winning actors, but instead the woeful invention of the “super-villain”. In an act of self-plagiarism, another guy named Lex Luthor would show up soon after to lock horns with Superman, boasting similar motives and means, but with a bit more style and a bit less Grandpa-on-blood-thinners. Luthor was originally portrayed as a fatty boom-batty in a purple three-piece, with shaggy red hair, and a thinner, bald assistant in tow. Since no one was really paying attention to what they were doing by that point, the next time the artist got a script featuring Luthor, he drew Lex to appear like his bald employee by accident, and the rest is sad, pathetic history.
From that point on, Superman would no longer bother standing up for the little guy, since everyone was little compared to him and his new enemies, their class concealed by a blizzard of pure ideology. Superheroes were removed from the conflicts of earth and the revenge fantasies of oppressed workers and their children, and raised to a rarefied plane of their own where fantastic enemies with absurd, world-monarchic plots could be dispatched tidily without disrupting the status quo. The standard format of the superhero story was born: super-villain threatens world peace; superhero clucks his tongue and totes his enemy off to jail without a scratch even if he’s in the act of killing millions of people at the time and will inevitably do so again; superhero yuks it up with the close friends whom he lies to every single day of his life about the most important thing in their tiny world.
Almost immediately, Superman was drafted to fight another fantastic menace that threatened the world: the “JapaNazi” enemy that was the heavily-fictionalized—and heavily-racialized—version of Axis powers whose slit-eyed, buck-toothed fiends tangled with everyone from Wonder Woman to Captain America, in between the superheroes’ new side jobs selling war bonds and encouraging children to collect and donate scrap metal to the same arms manufacturers Superman had kidnapped and humiliated just a couple years earlier. Superman’s Nazi-mangling was blatant enough to earn the ire of the SS, who denounced Superman and his Jewish creators in 1940 in the pages of their official periodical, Das schwarze Korps:
Jerry Siegel, an intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York, is the inventor of a colorful figure with an impressive appearance, a powerful body, and a red swim suit who enjoys the ability to fly through the ether.
The inventive Israelite named this pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind “Superman.” He advertised widely Superman’s sense of justice, well-suited for imitation by the American youth.
As you can see, there is nothing the Sadducees won’t do for money!
There was a problem here other than the Protocols of the Elders of Krypton, and it brought down superheroes as a booming commercial enterprise before it was through. When Superman was beating up random capitalists, or even bizarre super-nerds with seemingly endless resources, he could put the bad guy away with ease at the end of the story without seeming too big for his britches. But what would Superman do if he was fighting Hitler’s army? He’d just fly over to Hitler’s house and spirit him off for immediate trial & execution, followed by Mussolini, then Tojo, then anyone else necessary to lop off the head of fascist governance and plunge the Axis capitals into chaos. If resistance continued, Superman could always come back and wipe out all of the enemy’s tanks, ships, planes and fighting men with one hand tied behind his cape. Who could stop him from ending World War II in a day? He’s Superman.
And he did do that, but the strip’s writers felt compelled by decency, and likely by the constant presence of government censors, to put an exaggerated wink-and-nod into the text and explain this as an “imaginary story” even in Superman’s world, before putting the whole idea to bed for good. It would have been grotesque to write an ongoing comic strip during wartime wherein Hitler had been bumped off by the hero just last month; it would have been just as unacceptable to suggest that Hitler somehow got the best of Superman when the target audience for the book fantasized nightly about treeing Adolf themselves. Superman had to support the war effort with whole-hearted nationalism while remaining discreetly, awkwardly removed from direct involvement in the biggest fight against evil in the history of the world. In other words, he had to join the bourgeoisie.
Superheroes were stuck between a rock and a hard place, even as comic book covers showing them socking Hitler in the puss moved copies like crack cocaine; the real Man of Steel was already saving the world from the Nazis while everyone watched, and the American press was preparing itself to turn on a dime as soon as the war was over and America’s alliances duly shifted back to supporting addled post-World-War-II fascists like Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle as they beat the drums for war against the Reds and the re-enslavement of their colonial empires. At the end of the war, the bottom fell out of the market for superheroes, and ever-gorier, ever-more-provocative products took their place in the comic book market, filled with sarcastic, unfunny parody, battlefield trauma, and zombies, zombies, zombies. Captain America’s comic book transmogrified itself into the undead-packed Captain America’s Weird Tales, and the character appeared less and less until he, and his name, were removed from the book entirely.
The only survivors of the superhero crash of the 1950s were perennial best-sellers Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, who spent a little time here and there fighting Commie saboteurs (easier to deal with since they could be assumed to be everywhere at all times, eminently beatable but never disappearing). Much more often, they tangled themselves in dippier, feather-light struggles against the fantastic that did away with story structure altogether, instead adapting the script to whatever goofy images the artists put down to please bored suburban kids who would soon discover television. This included the lusty continuation of those hideous war-time Yellow Peril stereotypes, hastily switched to represent Red China. (Wonder Woman gained a Communist nemesis named “Egg Fu”, an unforgettable mash-up of Fu Manchu, Jerry Lewis’s “flied lice” routine and an actual honest-to-God egg that DC last attempted to revive in 2006*.)
FIGURE 8. GOD BLESS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
Finally, a wave of psychiatric-Congressional censorship swept through the flailing market and wiped out its last vestiges of cleverness, setting the stage in the late 1950s for what we would nowadays call a “reboot” of the DC superhero concepts who didn’t sell as well as the Big Three. Soon enough, DC’s undisputed reign over kiddie comic book properties would be permanently overturned by the arrival and dominance of Marvel’s bratty ‘60s newcomers, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. All of Marvel’s heroes seemed to hate each other nearly as much as they hated themselves, and adolescent kids (and, later, acid-dropping college heads) ate it all up and demanded seconds.
In the decades that followed, Superman would swerve every way possible and fill every possible role within the narrow, shallow, childish confines of the character: as the impish Roadrunner to Lex Luthor’s Wile E. Coyote; as the back-slapping best bud of Batman in the World’s Finest series, where Clark and Bruce accidentally come out to each other while stripping down to their super-undies during a flustered mix-up in the cabin they share on a pleasure cruise; as an absentee member of a monthly round-up of low-selling also-rans known as the “Justice League”; as the grinning super-torturer of his hapless buddy Jimmy Olsen and even dumber girlfriends Lois Lane and Lana Lang while they throttled each other over exclusive rights to Superman’s chaste affection; as a Marvel-esque soap opera queen at his new job as a television anchor, newspaper reporters having been deemed too old-fashioned for 1970s readers by DC’s editors; as an audience-friendly ally of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, a gang of drugged-out hyperspace hippies engaged in a Trojan war against a penis-shaped mega-Hitler; as a braying Reaganite jackass who got his ass handed to him by a fascist Batman in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the abysmal book on which the spring of 2016’s most depressing movie was largely based—
And it’s here, in Miller’s scratchy, bloody realm of pretentious faux-maturity, that superheroes have been stuck for the last thirty-plus years, as they shed all of their younger readers and circled the wagons around the insecure impulse-buying adults who remained. Superhero comics are currently in the act of milking the last drops of nostalgia from a failing readership that are, despite their shared super-powers of forgetting to vote, drinking too much and legally renting a car to die in, still far too young to actually remember the children’s stories that get endlessly retold in the total garbage that lands on their Kindles each month. Nowadays, Superman plays surrogate Super-Dad to a shrinking nursery of adult babies, and he’s an angry daddy who likes to play rough.
Super-villains themselves have become superfluous to superhero stories, an idea Marvel hit upon back in the 1960s and have continued to advance to the detriment of DC’s old guard in sales and popularity. The bad guys now serve as impetus for superheroes to meet each other, manifest severe symptoms of personality disorders in their arguments with each other, destroy cities as they beat the shit out of each other over misunderstandings a four-year-old could puzzle through without violence, then team up to defeat the supposed “real enemy” within the few pages or minutes left—unless there’s a sequel in the works, and of course, there always is.
Advertisements inside covers once pitched X-ray specs and whoopee cushions; now they pimp the Honda Fit to their new target audience. A subgenre of popular literature, first incarnated in a radical leftist activist who sold millions of copies of his adventures to American children every month, now boasts “best-selling” books that move under a hundred thousand copies like anyone gives a shit about those peanuts while The Avengers recoups the equivalent of a small country’s GDP in theaters and instructs children in dozens of languages on what they will demand from Santa this year. Just as super-villains lost their cachet, the comic book and its reader have become utterly unnecessary to the commercial enterprise of the superhero. Both remain insufferably whiny beyond their importance, and I imagine many people in the superhero industry wish they would both just go away. (It couldn’t hurt.)
II. SUPERMAN FOR SOVIET POWER
As the Cold War waned and defanged anti-Communist Soviet kitsch entered the American pop culture mainstream, it was only a matter of time before someone offered up another of DC’s official “imaginary stories”: what if Superman’s messianic-creche-cum-rocket-ship landed in the Soviet breadbasket instead of Kansas?
FIGURE 9. MUCH LIKE THE RHIZZONE, THIS STUPID COMIC BOOK USES THE "MAN OF STEEL" PUN ABOUT TWENTY TIMES PER YEAR REPRESENTED.
The story that resulted from this question no one asked is a piece of shit even among pieces of shit. It features a nonsense script by a much-derided author juggled between a pair of sub-par artists, and it could only make the slightest lick of sense to someone who has read far too many Superman stories to qualify as human anymore. It has also sold constantly in reprints ever since its first release in 2003, and it has made DC a ton of money as these things go. Superman fans cannot get enough of this shitty, shitty comic book.
Superman, raised on a collective farm and placed at the right hand of Stalin, ascends to lead the Soviet Union after his mentor’s death, and makes Communism work in the only way it can in the minds of the Western media, through hands-on micro-management by a brilliant individual to make up for all the lazy parasites who mooch off the system. In the half-researched alternate history concocted by the book’s British script-writer, Khrushchev, Beria and the rest are nowhere to be found, and Superman’s only competition for the nebulous position of head Red is an illegitimate child of Stalin’s who shot Bruceski Waynesikov’s parents, thus creating a bomb-throwing, pro-American Anarcho-Batman whose only enemy is the Soviet state. (Much of the book consists of inventing reasons for the same decades-old characters to don their same brand-happy costumes, only in Moscow instead of Gotham or Metropolis.)
After Superman paints the entire world crimson outside of the U.S., ultra-capitalist Lex Luthor wins the Presidency of the United States and somehow builds the besieged nation into a rival superpower in months by closing its borders to all commerce and inventing iPods that cure entropy. Finally, Luthor takes his arch-nemesis down by writing him a one-line mash note that says, you know, Commies are all murderous tyrants, if you really think about it.4
FIGURE 10. REMEMBER, FOLKS: TANKIES MAKE COMMIE SUPERMAN CRY 2000 FLUSHES.
Overwhelmed with Holodomor guilt, Superman fades dutifully into the background, as his Communist paradise collapses just as dutifully into nonexistence. While Lex Luthor builds his new world into a neo-Nazi utopia complete with black-on-red quasi-swastika arm patches, Clark Kent contributes a bit of himself here and there in the most noble way possible: by creeping around in disguise and shooting his alien semen into the willing wombs of Lex’s brownshirt drones. Through a combination of fascist ingenuity and Kryptonian spunk, the planet Earth develops into a beautiful, inbred futurist paradise, until the pampered masses fall into idiocy and fail to heed the apocalyptic warnings of a clever scientist descended from both Luthor and Superman’s lines who saves his only son from his exploding planet by sending him, not into outer space, but backwards in time, swaddled in a rocket-like device that makes landfall in 1930s Soviet Ukraine. Commie Superman, failed savior of the Soviet system, turns out to be the time-looped blood product of a far-future eugenicist Nazi Aryan global empire, which is about as close to irony as superhero comics can manage without dying of meaning.
A very former friend of the book’s writer, the son of a Scottish trade-union leader, would later script an official DC book about a Nazi Superman where Hitler instantly assumes his newly-acquired super-baby to be exactly the same sort of time-travelling super-Nazi that he actually turns out to be at the end of the above-described Brit-fash toilet that bears the title (this may be too clever for some of you) Red Son.
And, let’s face it, that is exactly what Superman turned out to be at his enduring core: not the populist product of and for the urban working class that he was at his Depression-era genesis, but the gloomy Übermensch of a regrettable future-made-present who has nothing to occupy his time ever since the fascists won the Second World War in 1946, a puffed-out fathead who goes around pounding on his friends in unstable rages and reciting old war stories at the ratty Kneipe down the street to a dwindling and aging group of fans, who are themselves waiting for the chance to man a tower at the camps whether they realize it or not.
If you listen to most comic book readers, the problem with this year’s Batman v Superman: They’re Gonna Make Out is that it got its characters all wrong; they’re supposed to be nice and good. These fans denounce the leaden spectacle of a gun-toting, range-roving Batman setting out to murder an equally deadly and elitist Superman, all based on a personal grudge over Batman’s building falling over while Superman was punching someone through it. But those same people hold up the gross, ugly comic book on which the movie is based—a book written and drawn by gross, ugly racist Frank Miller as a gutter-paean about inner-city youth as inhuman animals—and call it a contender for the greatest work in comic book history, the height of the form as it stands today.
They may be right about that last part, at least. Comic books were once the chosen form of propaganda for the masses in the West, for good or ill, but now, they’re the true last refuge of the middle-brow, “middle-class” pseudo-intellectual who can’t handle the pace of cable TV or movies, a basement laboratory for testing intellectual property before anyone important tries to make real money from it. Superheroes are outsold in the tiny existing market only by comic-book “seasons” of cancelled kidult TV sci-fi dramas, and the shoegazing “indie” comics scene that remains is like what would happen if Lex Luthor gave each of the bourgeois literati in New York City a stroke one by one, then forced them to continue their careers through photocopied pictographs about baking muffins while depressed.
Fucking die comics you suck.
III. BATMAN, WHO IS THE CAPITALIST
Yeah so fuck this guy.
IV. EPILOGUE: THE LEFT SWIPE OF KRYPTON
1. Comic books and strips can always get away with more than the rest of visual media and always have, and the 1950s were no exception. Today, comics are where you’re most likely to find uncensored & graphic incest scenes for public sale in the U.S. (even Amazon pressures its self-published smut-prose writers to add the prefix “step-” to key words in their stories) while your average Tales from the Crypt issue from the J. Edgar Hoover era showed cackling witches sewing the bad guy’s intestines into a quilt, etc., not exactly the sort of thing you’d see at the movies in the United States back then. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, those sorts of books were sold in huge quantities to young children, no questions asked, since they made big money for their publishers and the only ways to make real money on comics in the U.S. during the 1950s were to a) sell a ton of comic books to kids at newsstands and corner stores, b) land one of a couple of the least fun jobs at Playboy, or c) be that drunk Kluxer who did Li’l Abner and always drew everyone’s hair as parting on whatever side of their face he was drawing at the time even if it was parted on the opposite side in the previous panel of the exact same goddamn racist comic strip. (Little Orphan Annie was also pretty much written and drawn by Adolf Hitler but no one had a problem with that either.)
2. This became the “Daily Planet” once Superman’s comic strip began appearing in newspapers; Superman’s artist, Joe Shuster, grew up in Toronto, and the Star was the first newspaper he encountered.
3. Gold for their bosses, not themselves—the story of how the men who created Superman were consigned to royalty-free poverty, through the legal footwork of their employer and some creative United States case law, deserves an article of its own about the economics of capitalist exploitation. While we’re at it, it’s never a bad time to paint a target on Batman “creator” Bob Kane, who happened to have a close relative in the publishing business and also happened to work out a way to receive lifetime sole credit and royalties for a character whose creation barely involved him at all, at a time when his co-creators and most of his fellows in the industry were thrown in the dumpster if they so much as asked for a sick day. Kane himself quickly turned Batman into a sweatshop to rival the lowest-quality newspaper comic strips of later decades, and we will never know exactly who drew a great many of Batman’s earliest, best-selling comics, only that Kane invariably scribbled his own signature on others’ work before it was sent to print. Another good story about Bob Kane takes place years after he achieved celebrity status, when another well-known artist walked up to him in the hallway at the DC offices one day and slapped him hard across the face because he knew no one would mind, and people still laugh about it on Twitter because Kane’s not only a loudmouth toolbox but also around five foot nothing so his feet probably lifted off the ground.
4. The single-sentence schoolyard taunt is the same tactic that 2016’s cinematic Lex Luthor uses on Batman, again to great effect, because every superhero has to be a fickle idiot to make any recent superhero story work at all. The same characters were reliably the smartest people in the room back when they were written as distractions for children rather than as stand-ins for needy grown-ups; go figure.
*A reader has directed me to Wikipedia, and a correction is in order: according to that source, the most recent appearance in a DC comic book of a version of this best-forgotten character occurred last year, in 2015. Never give up, Time Warner.